Where Senators Sit on Auto Bailout

One of the more fascinating things in big Congressional debates like the one currently surrounding the auto industry is understanding the motivation of particular legislators in supporting or opposing a bill.

In some cases it's easy. Michigan congressmen backing a rescue of GM , Ford and Chrysler is pretty easy to figure out. The other side is a little less apparent. But opposition to a Big 3 bailout is more understandable once you realize a Senator has a couple of Japanese car plants in his state.

Here's our stab at drawing such connections to light. I'm kind of proud of it because it addresses what I think is a weakness in the business press, or for that matter the media in general. We don't always do a particularly good job bringing such linkages to light. There are a few reasons.

1. It's Real Work. You have to do research to figure out who a politician represents. That research is often boring. And as an editor I can tell you ... not all reporters are fans of doing long, boring research. And also I can tell you, I'm not a fan of losing a reporter for a good chunk of time so they can do long, boring research on a story that may not get a lot of traction. (And so I thank our intern, Lesley Sideck, for putting together our piece).

2. Limitations. There are also space and time constraints. In TV or radio, you only have a couple of minutes, sometimes less, to tell people the essentials of what happened. In newspapers and magazines, it's column-inches. The general rule is: News comes first, background second. When constraints close it, it's usually the background that gets short shrift. And so you get quick short-hand glosses like "Southern state senators oppose ...", which really only work for people already well versed in national politics.

Sure, the Internet has less of a problem with such constraints, but we still have limits in terms of how long a reader will pay attention and how well a reporter will remember to make the connections.

3. Fairness. Just because a legislator has a constituency pulling for a particular issue doesn't always mean he or she will fight for it. John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage" is full of stories about legislators who sacrificed vested political interest for the sake of the country's greater good. I know our current crop of politicians doesn't seem to fit that mold, but nevertheless a good journalist should probably give a pol the benefit of the doubt. So immediately drawing a line between constituency and motivation might not always be appropriate.

4. Washington-centric. Of course, there is a dedicated press corps in Washington, D.C., that prides itself on knowing such connections. But you know all that "Washington insider" criticism thrown around during the presidential campaign? The same thing exists in journalism. DC-based journos tend to obsess about DC things from a DC perspective. And so the partisan aspect of legislative debates gets hyped a little more than basic who-represents-what explanations.

This isn't to say all journalism falls short when it comes to dissecting individual motivations in legislative debates. There is some work out there that does a great job of drawing the intricacies of vested interest and politics. We're just not terribly consistent about it. Here's our stab at getting better.